BookSmarts Podcast (ep. 34): Book Accessibility with Laura Brady
Mary Carlomagno is a publishing veteran with experience on all sides of the business including marketing positions at Barnes & Noble and Random House. She is a nationally recognized organizing expert and author whose books have appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Program, The Today Show, and CBS News.
Currently, she is the Director of Sales and Business Development for Bowker bringing their wealth of services to the traditional publisher market. She joins us on the BookSmarts Podcast to discuss how publishers can expand the visibility of their titles. Click below to listen to the episode in full! Keep on reading for the key takeaways.
Click below to listen to the episode in full! Keep on reading for the key takeaways.
What does book accessibility mean in the publishing industry?
My take on this is that accessibility in Trade Publishing means publishing thoughtfully, and publishing for all readers so that readers of all abilities and types have choice in how they read. What that means, really, is that you’re just being thoughtful about how you produce things, both print and digital, and also audio and bringing some thoughtfulness and awareness of the issues surrounding inclusive publishing to the table when you create those kinds of formats.
I really think one of the key things is that accessibility should be something that rolls into everyone’s job in a publishing house. And I really mean everyone, from the receptionist to the CEO. It should be part of what everyone does, and they should bring accessibility and inclusive publishing thinking to almost everything they do, and sort of rejigging how we think about producing books and folding accessibility into it can lead to some seismic changes from the current status quo.
How would accessibility affect everyone’s job at a publisher, like the front desk receptionist?
That person probably doesn’t have a ton of power when it comes to affecting change, but they can be answering the phone in an inclusive way. It can be even things like thinking about pronoun usage. One of the best examples I’ve heard of recently is that customer service needs to be trained on accessibility so they don’t do something like ask a deaf / blind user to send a screenshot of what is troubling them and why they can’t read a content. It can be really small things like that, but also reading meaningful things.
The other example I have is that I really think the key to moving the needle on accessibility issues is to get editorial staff involved. Editorial staff, I think it’s fair to say, are very overworked and really bear the burden of the publishing process, so this may feel a little bit like a pile on. It’s not how I intended it, but if editors are doing things like marking language shifts, and marking the difference between, say, italics and emphasis in content, that can be preserved all the way through the production process, and can be meaningfully coded in an eBook and audiobook reading experience. It feels kind of minor and sort of low on the totem pole of priorities, but if editors are thinking about those things, we are a couple miles ahead when it comes to creating content seamlessly and accessibly.
How does accessibility affect Trade Publishing specifically?
Thinking about readers and inclusivity can be right from the acquisition stage. You can be building characters with difference into a fiction or that sort of thing. You could be asking authors to write image descriptions, particularly of nonfiction content, and if there’s an awareness of accessibility at that level, then that can be built into contracts even. Publishers should also audit their own websites, particularly if they have an ecommerce website. Spend some time and money to buy a third party auditor who can evaluate particularly things like the checkout process, to make sure that people who can’t see or have disabilities of some sort don’t prevent them from interacting with your website.
If you’re planning far enough ahead, you can start a collaboration with maybe a third party who will fund and produce a Braille edition of content. If you start from two years out, that’s a total possibility. There are people in the marketplace who can collaborate like that. But it also means things like making your eBooks accessible. A lot of eBooks are made at the end of the publishing production pipeline with some ambivalence, and maybe not a lot of thought, and I would love to change that fundamentally. Ebook publishing should be a revolution for people with print disabilities, and we are 15 years in or so and it’s just not. And that’s because there are a lot of slapdash eBooks in the marketplace that just don’t meet even accessibility minimums. It’s a problem.
In the context of trade publishing, publishers can do things like get their workflow certified, say, through a program like Benetech Global Certified Accessible. I love that process, because it’s an education. Because it’s iterative. What Benetech does is it takes one of your eBooks, looks at it, gives you feedback, and tells you to go fix it. Then, through the process of fixing it, you figure out all the kinks in your workflow, correct them, send it back, and they’ll tell you what you have to do again, because it’s a process.
One of the main messages I would love listeners to take away from this podcast is this. Accessibility is a culture and accessibility is a process. If you don’t know a ton about it, it can feel really overwhelming, especially once you start to sort of scratch the surface of what’s available on the internet, but just start. Accessibility is a culture. Accessibility is a process and just start. It may be baby steps, but, dig in, just try. It could be something starting with something as simple as coding language shifts in your content, then working up to writing image descriptions, taking a keen look at the built in environment in your office to make sure that it meets accessibility standards, and then planning an accessible event where everyone is welcome. People of all kinds of abilities and disabilities can enjoy it in a full way.
Make it easy for people to buy your books, and one of the ways of doing that is making really accessible content. You know, one other thing I would love to mention is that publishers should really audit their own websites, particularly if they have an ecommerce website. And by audit it, I don’t mean audit it yourself. Spend some time and money to buy a third party auditor who can evaluate particularly things like the checkout process, to make sure that people who can’t see, or, have disabilities of some sort that prevent them from interacting in a so called normal way with your website, you know, the expected interaction, audit that process and make sure that they can buy your books. We want people to buy your books. And if they can’t read it, that’s one thing. They can’t buy it, that’s also another thing, you know, make that easy. That’s a simple first step that you can take. I mean, I say simple. It’s not simple. Making website isn’t simple. But that is a step you can take.
Can you speak to the accessibility legislation over in Europe and how that may affect non-European publishers?
There’s a major piece of legislation in the EU called the European Accessibility Act. It went into effect in 2019 and will go into full effect in June 2025. Essentially, eBooks are seen as a service just like learning platforms and websites are seen as a service. That’s how they’re interpreted in that legal mechanism, and if your digital content doesn’t meet strict accessibility minimum standards, you will not be able to sell it into the EU.
So why should North American publishers think about that?
Well, in Canada, where I’m from, French language publishers are a little bit ahead of English language publishers, and that’s because they are already selling into the EU. They’re already thinking about those things and trying to get their house in order. Also, if you’ve visited a website today, and had to accept all cookies, you can thank the EU for that. That’s GDPR legislation that’s rippled out around the world.
I wouldn’t sleep on the EAA. It may feel like you’re a tiny publisher in America who doesn’t need to pay attention to European legislation, but this will ripple out and it will impact your marketplace, I promise. It remains to be seen what kind of effect that’s going to have but my advice is just get your house in order and publish accessibly because you’ll sell more books.
Will the European legislation affect older ebooks?
The backlist is 100% affected, so if your backlist isn’t accessible, you will not be able to sell it.
It’s a major undertaking for European publishers at the moment and it is almost all anyone’s talking about in some circles. There are mechanisms to opt out of it, like if you’re only producing manga or comics or graphic novels, those are exempt. If your annual revenue is less than 2 million euro, I believe, you’re exempt. There are some opt outs. They’re small.
I’m gonna say that, for sure, most content is subject to the EAA, backlist included, so a lot of publishers in Europe right now are sort of going through their sales records and deciding which are their favorite children on their back list to remediate. It’s a ton of work. It’s good work. Accessible content is better content for everyone, so putting in the time and making that content better, is a win-win-win, in my opinion.
How do you start the process of making your titles accessible?
This is a great question. Five years ago, there was very little out there in terms of helping you with this specific kind of question, but we live in a bit of a golden age of resources when it comes to accessible publishing. There’s a couple of resources I’d like to point to. One is the Accessible Publishing Learning Network. This is something that an organization in Canada wrote and built, they’re called Ebound Canada, and it’s full of really good content. Some of it I’m responsible for, so I should just make that clear at the start, but most of the content was written by the folks at the National Network for Equitable Library Services. They’re a really amazing organization who employs a load of people with print disabilities to do the work of inclusive publishing. A really important piece of APLN is the community hub, where anyone can create an account and post a question and crowdsource answers from experts around the world. It’s a really useful piece of the APLN and I encourage you all to go have a look and check it out.
The DAISY Consortium is a rich website full of webinars from the past, full of tools that you can use like ACE by Daisy and EPUB Checker, and full of explainers of how to do specific pieces of the accessible publishing puzzle, a really tremendous resource. Their sister site, Inclusive Publishing, also has a resourceful newsletter you can subscribe to.
If English isn’t your first language, Inclusive Publishing in Practice offers free courses and learning materials to put your accessibility knowledge into practice, and is available in Dutch, German, Spanish, and English.
How big of an effort is accessibility?
I think that instead of having one person in a publishing house who’s responsible for accessibility, I mean, it’s good to have specialists, but one of the problems with particularly indie publishing is that it’s a very small house with four or five employees wearing five or six different hats, that sort of thing. If you have all of that knowledge condensed in one person, and that person leaves, then you have a problem, so making sure that the responsibility and the knowledge about accessible publishing is spread throughout an organization, I think, is really critical, particularly for small publishers.
I would also say that there’s operational things you could do, you know. The question of image descriptions, for example. I work with one publisher who insists on image descriptions from the author, and if they’re not provided, they’re billed for the service of writing the image descriptions for them. I think that’s a kind of really revolutionary thing that it’s not all on the author, it’s not all on the editors. If we’re all sharing some piece of that work, then the work is easier. Sharing the load.